By definition, the word “ethics” has a pretty straight-forward meaning. Essentially, it is a series of moral principles that govern an individual’s behaviors and actions. It acts as a dividing line between what’s considered “right” and “wrong.” Ethics applies to many areas of life. But one of its more recent applications is in the food industry. Combining the words “ethics” and “food” seems like it should be simple, but it’s in fact a complex topic that’s the subject of much debate. Ultimately, food ethics encompasses ethics in a variety of areas, including animal ethics, environmental ethics, and ethics related to food industry employment and food distribution. What is considered “right” and “wrong” in these areas varies widely based on personal beliefs, geographical location, and societal norms.
One area that influences the topic of food ethics is animal ethics. The term “animal ethics” is one that’s primarily used in academia to describe the relationship between humans and non-human animals. This relationship is an ideal model of how animals should be treated, which is with respect, kindness, and consideration. But the proper treatment for animals, especially animals designed for human consumption, is seen through many different lenses. Some people (and some cultures) are opposed to the killing of any animal for food. Some even refrain from buying and supporting any products made with animal parts. These individuals would argue that it is unethical to walk into a grocery store and buy any type of meat, fish, eggs, and sometimes dairy, cheese, and honey. Other individuals feel that it is perfectly ethical to consume animals, provided only as many are raised and slaughtered as needed for subsistence. Other people argue that raising animals commercially for widespread consumption is ethical as long as the animals are given plenty of space to roam and have an overall high quality of life when they are alive.
The term “environmental ethics” is another component in the topic of food ethics. This term describes the relationship between humans and the natural environment. It is a similar principle to the concept of animal ethics in the sense that with environmental ethics, the guiding principle is that Earth and its natural resources should not be depleted or destroyed. Like animal ethics, environmental ethics is a complex principle. When applied to the context of food ethics, it refers to any aspect along the food production line, from raising animals or produce to manufacturing and shipping it, that could negatively affect the environment. Some people believe that it is unethical, for instance, to cut down large swaths of forest to create fields for growing crops. Others feel that using fertilizers, pesticides, and genetically modifying plants and seeds to create more product is an acceptable practice, while others do not. A topic of especially heated controversy is that of large-scale agricultural operations where the emphasis is on producing food for commercial gain. These operations typically get blamed for exposing their animals and human workers to poor treatment and dangerous conditions. For the workers, large-scale operations are also often criticized for not providing sufficient pay. Furthermore, large-scale operations are often blamed for using unsound practices that pollute the air and waterways in the surrounding environment.
The Human Component
Humans are a critical factor in many parts of the food ethics debate. This includes everyone who works directly in the food industry to consumers. Even the debate over who gets access to food of a certain quality and quantity is part of the question. Many individuals, either through religious beliefs or societal influences, believe that access to clean and sufficient supplies of food and water is a basic human right. But the reality is that the availability of food is quite polarized. While some people have access to as much food and as many varieties of food as they want, others do not. They may suffer from starvation and malnutrition as a result.
Employment within the food industry is another component of food ethics. From farmers to processing plant employees and grocery store clerks to restaurant staff, there is a considerable amount of debate over what fair working prices and conditions should be. This is the case both within the United States and around the world. Societal norms and standards are a driving factor in the global debate about correct and incorrect treatment and wages for food industry workers. For instance, the median annual salary for a farmer in the United States is about $66,000. In contrast, an American might be shocked to learn that the average annual salary for a farmer in India is just over $1,000 USD. This is a surface-level comparison that does not take into other factors like the cost of living and salaries in other professions in those areas. However, when taken at face value, it is enough to spark questions from food ethicists about whether the salary of workers outside of the United States is adequate. The same principle applies to working hours and working conditions.
The topic of food ethics is controversial and highly personal. There are many layers – and answers – to the question of what is right versus what is not when it comes to food. Ultimately, the matter is one of personal choice. Like politics, a roomful of people is not going to agree on the answer to correct food ethics. If you are wondering what the “right” principles are to follow when it comes to food ethics, the best answer is just to make choices that you believe in and feel comfortable with. Others will always question your decisions, but you have the right and power to decide what issues and matters are most important to you when considering your choice of food, where it comes from, and how it gets to you.
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Guest post by: Kylie
Kylie is the editor at Green & Growing.
She enjoy the outdoors, especially when she can go on a fun hike or adventure. She likes to focus on the perks green living.
She feels it is so important to take care of our earth and hope to spread more awareness as she edits and writes.